The Memory of a Killer
Bullet-riddled Belgian thriller gives American crime a run for its money
By Devin D. O'Leary
The Memory of a Killer
Directed by Erik Van Looy
Cast: Jan Decleir, Koen De Bouw, Werner De Smedt
America all but invented the crime film back in the '30s and '40s--blame Warner Brothers and James Cagney for its universal appeal. The French took it over in the '50s and '60s, giving us the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon--blame them for the very term film noir. Since then, it's been an all-out battle royale over who's got the toughest guys and the most fatale femmes. Is it the Italians with their violent thrillers? Or the Asians with their high-caliber bullet operas? Or the Americans with their Tarantino-esque pulp?
Personally, I think we're all being quietly edged out by those sneaky northern Europeans. Check out Lars von Trier's dark The Element of Crime. Or Michael Haneke's cruel Funny Games. Even Hollywood agrees, having plundered films like George Sluizer's Dutch treat Spoorloos (poorly remade as The Vanishing), Erik Skjoldbjærg's icy Insomnia (finely retooled by Christopher Nolan in 2002) and Ole Bornedal's Nattevagten (which the director reshot himself as 1997's Nightwatch).
Odds, then, are awfully good that Erik Van Looy's lean, muscular Belgian thriller The Memory of a Killer is already being eyed for a Hollywood remake. My advice to you is to catch it in its original form before someone hires Clint Eastwood and the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket.
The Memory of a Killer is assembled from familiar pieces--a bit of John Woo's The Killer here, a snippet of Luc Besson's The Professional there--but it rearranges them in an entertaining manner. Aging tough guy Jan Decleir (star of about 80 movies--you may recognize him from Antonia's Line) plays Angelo Ledda, a frighteningly efficient, anvil-faced hitman who's just been hired to assassinate a blackmailer in Belgium. Angelo, like most movie hitmen, just wants to retire--an option, we are always reminded, that doesn't exist.
But Angelo has a better reason than most for wanting to retire: He's suffering from the rapidly advancing symptoms of Alzheimer's (hence, the film's rather blunt original title, The Alzheimer Case). Angelo can still do his job, but he's reduced to writing names, dates and instructions on his arm as reminders.
Angelo finds further reason to get out of the business when he gets his second assignment: bumping off a prostitute who figures heavily into this political blackmail plot. Unfortunately, the prostitute is a 12-year-old girl, part of a kiddie sex ring with fingers in Belgium's political structure. Sensitive to the subject of child abuse, Angelo decides he's quitting. Of course, the bosses don't like that; they execute the young girl and look to do the same with Angelo.
The young girl's murder attracts the attentions of a pair of Antwerp police detectives. Vincke (Koen De Bouw) and his partner Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt) have been approaching this childhood prostitution ring from a different angle. Once the bodies start piling up, it becomes hard to figure out what the connections are. Angelo helps out, phoning up Vincke and telling him, in no uncertain terms, that if he just lays off for a while all the bad guys will be dead. Seems Angelo has taken a dislike to being shot at and decides he's going to stack up enough dead bodies that he can climb on up to the sleazy rich guy who hired him and return the favor. Naturally, Vincke can't allow that.
Intrepid cop, sympathetic killer: It's a well-worn dynamic of the genre. But The Memory of a Killer is slightly less interested in spastic, bullet-riddled shenanigans. (Not to worry, action fans, plenty of people do bite the bullet.) The screenplay (based on the novel by Jeff Geeraerts) spends a decent amount of time crafting characters, good and evil. The film's niftiest twist is that our elusive anti-hero is racing the clock. Can he keep his mind together long enough to get where he needs to? Or will one forgetful moment prove fatal?
Van Looy lenses the whole thing in crisp evening shades--film noir blacks punched up with bruise-colored blues and purples. Angelo's slipping memory is nicely portrayed in rapid flashbacks of acrid, urine-colored yellow.
In the end, The Memory of a Killer doesn't break any new ground. It's a cleverly conceived, smartly written, artistically-shot crime thriller along the lines of Memento. So, what's the point of remaking it? If more people would just get over their fears and read a few subtitles, this would be a solid mainstream hit. It's got cops and killers, nudity and gunplay, and it makes a hell of a lot more sense than The Transporter 2.
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